In the 18th and 19th centuries Linen was being produced for over three hundred years and Irish linen manufacturers have been an important part of the Irish culture and industry, particularly, in Northern Ireland where virtually every town and village had a small mill or a factory and by 1921 there were almost one million spindles and 37,000 looms, and over 70,000 people directly employed, representing at the time 40% of the Irish registered working population, with at least a 100,000 people dependant on the linen industry.
By the end of the 20th century due to advances in other fabrics this was dramatically reduced to approx 10 major companies, who employed at most, 4,000 people.
Linen is made from yarn cultivated from the flax plant, named Linum usitatissimum, and can be found and is found in southwestern Europe, including Britain, to the Mediterranean, Madeira and the Canaries. This domesticated plant was grown extensively thoughout the north. It's cellulosic plant fibre, or bast fibre, made it ideal for making fabric as it forms fibrous bundles underneath the inner bark of the stems of the plant. The plant annual and can grow to a height of about a metre the fibres run the entire length of the stem and help hold it upright.
The process of removing the fibre strands from the plant stems is known as retting (controlled rotting). In Ireland this done in water, rivers, ponds or retting dams.
The Flax plant was almost certainly one of the first plant fibres to be used for making textile materials. Many countries throughout the world can relate their association and history that is related to this fibre. Archaeological excavations of ancient Swiss lake dwellings have found evidence of the use of, linum angustifolium flax, for twines and nets around 8000 BC
Linen was probably first introduced to the British Isles by Phoenician traders around 900 BC. Some consider it to have been introduced by the Romans. Whichever it was, it was the Romans who established linen factories in Britain and Gaul to supply their colonial forces.
Linen has changed a lot over the centries and is still widely traded throughout the world and has been refined many times over. It is now widely used as table Linen and in clothing and is still one of the hardest wearing and flexible materials.